Important Yet Painful Lessons

It’s the final week of classes, and if I thought I’d make it through this semester without some sort of blog eruption then, well, I guess I was being too hopeful (read that, naive). Tempers flared and spirits were wounded over the weekend as our “great experiment,” the bloggers’ fieldtrip,nearly burst into flames–

Of course, this is not the first time disagreements have threatened my course blogs. I can remember a couple of arts writing courses back when two visiting experts grew so exasperated with one another–on the blog in front of the students no less– that one exited the blog altogether for some time until the other expert apologized. Last fall students blamed the blog for any and all course-related anxiety–some hated the blog, so much so, that one clever student, in his final project, did a take-off on the blog having an identity crisis in the wake of the constant criticism. And Héctor responded by pointing out the generalized anxiety people feel in the face of technology, saying:

I find the description of the blog both interesting and classic! Since the dropping of the atom bomb, historically, critically, and philosophically (culturally), we Americans, have had the tendency of “talking about” technology as if it were an entity outside ourselves; as if it exists “doing something” to us; as if it’s reliant and existent without our doing.

This is the tone and character of the description. A blog — or a weblog — is merely a tool. What in fact you’re talking about–the feeling and “anxiety” that comes across–is about technology in general.

How frustrating it is to suddenly be thrust upon what at first blush appear to be disparate realities: the new College; the new cyber-college. What do we make of this?

Our American reality is such that we’ve created a speed-frenetic-overwhelming (sometimes), beautiful, ridiculous, over the top, and imposing culture-and arguably world–that we’re seeking to have others join. It is, indeed, a globabization of more than just goods, services, and technologies; it is a globalization of attitude, of process, of morals and ideals.

What are our choices?

Two–only.

Be driven by it or drive it yourself.

Like Frost, who has chosen the road less traveled, I too chose this one–which is to drive myself.

What side are you guys on? In order to drive, one needs to know; to know is to work–and many times, most often, through frustrations.

Do you wanna work? Work can be play.

This time, the students are feeling the effects of blogging without thinking through the ramifications of their charged words being put out there in indelible blogtype in the public sphere. First they felt the challenge of writing about the artists within their community. Now it’s the field trip. Responses to art in the world turned personal as patience frayed and frustrations were unleashed.

It took a face-to-face discussion in class to make it possible for the community to regain its footing. And this is where the blog is magnificent (and why, I think, it really must be used in concert with f2f class meetings)–it shows us where and how we go right and wrong immediately. It both gives us the space to say anything we want, and then by its public nature, make us face the consequences.

Some might wonder where I’ve been in all this–why I didn’t jump onto the blog at the first sign of trouble and mediate, direct, or plain old shut it down. Isn’t that what a teacher does? Isn’t that the teaching moment? And believe me, I drafted a couple of posts and nearly hit the SAVE button. But I resisted that urge and let them, one by one, wrestle with the quagmire. If I am a teacher who hands the blog and the course to the students, I have to let them work out the lessons for as long as I can. (If you hand them the blog, they’ll give you the boot.) I have to watch –at least for a while– lurking but not commenting as they figure out the range of writing, and how far they can go and what happens when bloggers misread one another.

But it’s in class, when we’re all together that I can do a little orchestrating by pointing out what I have observed–projecting the blog right up there on the big screen, and then letting them have their say. We can point to actual moments on the blog when commentary works and where it has broken down. And the students are commenting about how we really have two classes–f2f and e2e, and how they are learning quite different lessons in each realm.

They also see how their five-minute responses to the Picasso prompt –(five-minute!) exemplifies good writing about art- focused, energetic, and interesting. How is it that they had something to say and could assemble the words and some pretty elegant sentences in no time at all, and then fell apart outside of class? The sprawling, messy blog allows us to experience a rich array of writing, both good and bad, and learn about finding the rules, looking for the patterns and the urgency, the reasons for writing, for having something to say before we put the words out there in the world. And they see it.

Valuable lessons learned, even in this, the last week, of class.
Go blog go.

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Classroom Blogging as Performance Art

The end of the semester leads to sporadic postings here–and just after I got through urging teachers who use blogs in their classroom to blog in their own space as well! Ha! Héctor, Will, and many others have written about how instead of finding more mental space for reflecting on our teaching practices and on how our use of technology fits the larger puzzle of this cyber-revolution (because, theoretically, technology frees us up from the grind of the administrative details associated with our teaching and enables us to efficiently and effectively create student-centered classrooms), we’re finding ourselves ever more pressed for time. As Will has blogged recently, there’s just too much to read and digest and try out and think about.

“What’s cool, and also overwhelming,” he says, ” is that there’s so much good blogging going on these days.”

I notice how so many blogs are beginning to sound the same, to post the same links and reflections, even. Seems as though we’re all traveling the same route… Maybe Héctor has it right, resisting the call of the blog and posting anxiety by posting long essays once in a blue moon. But for me, when I don’t post, I feel guilty (which makes me think back to the whole “Questions of Audience” discussion on a couple of blogs earlier this semester). I also miss it because I know that if I’m not writing about what’s going on in my classroom and what I see in the blogosphere and the rest of the world as it pertains to this work, then I’m probably not thinking about it as deeply as I should. I’m letting the pace of classroom life carry me off. Which it very nearly has…

Even though the semester is well into its last frenzied moments (which in my world means that I am practically living in the media development lab helping kids with the glitches in their webwork and the near-disasters in their eyes-bigger-than-their-skills multi-media projects) there’s a new calm within the intensity. What’s different about this semester is how undaunted my students seem in the face of server crashes, file corruptions, compression nightmares and program freezing. They blithely move through the mini-disasters determined to write for the Web , on the Web.

And that’s what I want to make sure to reflect on over the coming weeks and once I’ve figured out the “why,” to develop my teaching in such a way that my students this spring capitalize on what I learn: this group of students has broken through to understanding what it means to WRITE ON THE WEB. For the first time (in the three plus years I’ve been at this classroom blogging/multimedia authoring work in my classes) we’re really getting it. The students see how it’s not enough to post a Word document to the blog and congratulate themselves for some blogging well done. It is not enough to post and run, to comment and drop. Some of the students are weaving earlier postings into the fabric of their writing, or referencing one another’s work, or extending earlier conversaitons through new postings. There’s a new circling back as they move forward, a grounding of the new work in the old as well as in the work beyond our own borders. The linking is neither haphazard nor arbitrary (linking for linking’s sake) as it was in earlier semesters. Linking to the world outside is done deliberately and carefully, not as a way to hand off the responsibility for making a particular point but to extend a notion that is an interesting but secondary point, or to draw the reader’s attention to luminaries and interesting, related work in the field. I don’t see the writing getting lazy in the face of a link as it did at times in my Irish course last fall. If anything, the writing sharpens in the approach or perhaps, more accurately, treats the link as a naturally integrated extension, as in playful profile of an artist friend or Britt’s recent blog post in which she weaves earlier group postings.

This group understands the need to consider the design dimensions of Web authoring: what should they put on a single screen and where, how the individual screens relate to one another and to the whole, how the visual qualities of the Web affect the reader-viewer’s experience, how they must take into account sound and how it interacts with text and image. Certainly our <a href=”http://mt.middlebury.edu/middblogs/ganley/Artswriting%20Experiments/005487.html”atrget=”-blank”digital storytelling assignments had an impact on our understanding of the interplay between the three modes of expression. Some of the final projects (still in process) demonstrate a pretty darn sophisticated use of the Web environment.

The students’ inventive and effective Web authoring pushes me to grow in my own use of it–as a teaching tool. Past explorations of discussions, workshopping avenues, publishing spaces and a building of assignments (moving from Levy’s knowledge trees to stories without words to hypertext stories to artist profiles and finally to multimedia final projects) are the first steps. Now I am trying to keep opening up the classroom to ways in which the blog invites us to explore a range of writing voices and modes and relationships–I won’t know for a while just how well these are working, exercises such as the Picasso-Stevens and Imagination piece which has them all posting responses to the Picasso in class on the blog without thinking about what anyone else is writing, and then posting again in response to Wallace Stevens’ response to Picasso–but not necessarily considering what their classmates have to say. We’ll take a look in class on Tuesday at what transpired around and between and in spite of each other. The Bloggers’ Field Trip is unfolding in an interesting way–wandering about town and countryside, and wandering about different voices and intentions and audiences all within the same post in some cases. And the side conversation going on in the comments section has influenced the field trip itself. Fascinating. This kind of exercise seems to offer some promising opportunities for writers to write about a work unhampered by what anyone else might think about it, and then push them up against what another writer has said about a work of art, necessitating a dialogue with that writer, and then free them up in the informal-and-heated conversation in the comments. We’ve had some fruitful discussions about the trip as it wends its way through our screens.

And then there’s the influence my students are having on others out there writing.. From Liza Sacheli, our most recent visitor, likening their blogging to performance art, to first-year Robyn in Héctor’s seminar, modelling her final project on the form created by Amanda in my seminar last year, to students using their blog work to springboard them into internships and jobs and publication offers, these student pioneers are having an impact on their world. That’s pretty good evidence of the power of this work.